“the counterpoint of rhetoric as chat-show”
Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (1993) still has time on its side. There are two apples on the table, the original that Gus offers Hannah at the end of scene two and now there’s Valentine’s MacBook. Whether ‘Pro’ or ‘Air’ I don’t know but – for a while – let’s stay with ‘Pro’ because this is a student production with professional heft.
The principal roles carry with admirable ease; big ideas don’t sound too heavy; and the impression grows of well-rehearsed supportive work, for even the closing waltzers look to be in step.
Anyway, you don’t ‘do’ Arcadia lightly. This is a recognised heavyweight of modern British drama. Go to The New Yorker online for ‘Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, at Twenty’ and see what I mean. The plot need not be reviewed – ‘I can’t do plots and have no interest in plots’, said Stoppard when interviewed for the Paris Review in 1988. OK, a soundbite and before Arcadia, but he makes it clear that he does not like ‘narrative mechanics’. What matters is structure (most difficult) and dialogue (easiest). He looks forward to writing ‘a literature play rather than an event play…. in one setting …. where all the time and the energy can be devoted to language, thought process, and emotion’. Eh voilà, a few years later, Arcadia, where Thomasina (13 and brilliant) picks up the leaf of the apple and says “We will start with something simple. I will plot this leaf and deduce its equation”. Note restricted use of ‘plot’. That, as it happens, leads to iterated algorithms of grouse numbers on the MacBook in Act 2 but Arcadia, for all its astonishing architecture, breadth and ingenuity, is a stage play and not a spreadsheet.
A pertinent example:
Bernard: Because time is reversed. Tock, Tick goes the universe and then recovers itself, but it was enough, you were in there and you bloody know!
Valentine: Are you talking about Lord Byron the poet?
Bernard: No, you fucking idiot, we’re talking about Lord Byron the chartered accountant.
Valentine: (Unoffended) Oh well, he was here all right, the poet.
Not that directors Eric Geistfeld & Charlotte Hodge have much room to enjoy this. The Bedlam stage has to be extended to accommodate the large table at its centre. Additional seating is provided onstage, left and right, but is unhelpful. Stoppard’s own description is of a bare room, uncarpeted, where ‘nothing is impressive but the scale’. Shooting parties are heard as noises-off and the schoolroom table accumulates the right props: folders, books, paper, pen, ink, an aged tortoise called ‘Lightening’ doubling as a paperweight. In the last scene, importantly, there is a pot of dwarf dahlias but otherwise the very large country house in Derbyshire in 1809, a stately home in 2014, is a distant setting in Bristo Place.
Upfront, down stage and around the table, however, there is solid, focused performance. Lauren Moreau is Thomasina Coverly and is entirely convincing as genius pupil and smart child (think Outnumbered Karen), who is as fascinated by jam in her rice pudding as she is by kissing. Pedro Leandro is her tutor, Septimus Hodge, who does languid and attractive intelligence to the nth degree of Fermat’s last theorem. Stoppard’s George in Jumpers (1972) belongs ‘to a school which regards all sudden movements as ill-bred’. Septimus went to Harrow, maybe played in the eleven with Byron, and learnt the same lesson. Leandro voices the elegant wit of the gentleman scholar as if to the manner born. Peter Stanley as Valentine Coverly, post-grad mathematician and modern day heir to Sidley Park, has the other sort of manor but the same gift of lazy concentration. As with Septimus, Valentine’s words provide rhythmic measure and reflection and Stanley makes you listen. Rik Hart as Bernard Nightingale provides the counterpoint of rhetoric as chat-show. Almost insufferable, ‘bouncy on his feet’, an academic bloodhound, the part drives the actor and Hart controls it very well. Sita Sharma, as Hannah, has to manage this clever, unrelenting, assault and still stand her own ground. A threatened kick in the balls and calling him an “absolute shit” gives her an encouraging, winning, start that a poised Sharma does not relinquish.
Supporting roles are better than also-rans but it is uneven going. Arcadia is an unforgiving estate in 1809. The costumes looked really good but this is not period drama and the physical comedy cramped up. Braying outrage from Henry Conklin as Chater and a glowering Capt.Brice RN. (Sebastian King) were fun but … too much. Rosie Pierce as Lady Croom went all out for pure-bred aplomb and witty hauteur, leaving Derbyshire far behind. Poor Mr Noakes (Lewis Robertson), jobbing landscape gardener, had no defence but a soft Scottish accent, which was nice. The remaining household: butler Jellaby (Will Naameh) and Lord Augustus (James Beagon) – stay impassive, dumb in my lordship’s case, and that served well.
In contemporary Sidley Park, Catherine Livesey is Chloe Coverly, 18 – giddy, kind and susceptible; whilst James Beagon is back and now speaks as ‘Gus, at Eton and pretty cool.
As students might plough a tough exam it is entirely possible to plough Arcadia and bury it. But not this time. Directors Eric Geistfeld & Charlotte Hodge and cast should reap a reward.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 5 February)
Visit Arcadia homepage here.